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Is Internet Interconnection the New Network Neutrality? Panel Suggests a New Regulatory Creep

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WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 – The Federal Communications Commission is likely to experience increasing pressure to intervene in and resolve disputes involving internet interconnection, experts said on Tuesday at a panel hosted by the Progressive Policy Institute.

Central to the discussion was the question of whether the FCC should go as far as to mandate interconnection, should the agency intervene.

Responses from the panelists were mixed, albeit leaning toward the standpoint that outright mandatory interconnection may be unnecessary, and even counter-productive – although there was dissent from that position.

Early in the discussion, Carnegie Mellon University computer engineering professor Jon Peha explained the basics of concept of interconnection:

“The Internet feels like one big network when we use it, but if that were the case, there would be no such thing as interconnection,” Peha said “The internet is a network of networks that are packed over 66,000 independent, autonomous networks that somehow work as one, and each network in there is connected to one or more neighboring networks. That means information I send may travel from network to network before it finally gets to its intended recipient.”

“For example, I have a student right now in Uganda and I sent her a message, and amazingly, from whatever network I’m at, it somehow figures out how to get my message to her in Uganda,” he said.

The technical challenge is not only in getting the message to Uganda, but getting every network along the way to carry the information. There are tangible costs to this, he said.

“The solution to both of these challenges is buried in the magic of interconnection agreements,” Peha continued. “An interconnection agreement is where two networks come together and agree on both the technical and business issues of changing internet traffic, including ‘will I carry any of your traffic, and if so, how much will I carry?'”

Up until now, interconnections have been created generally been created through by private, unregulated negotiations, but that is changing. The role of content distributor delivery networks and peering relationships are multiplying. The question, Peha said, is what to do about it.

Ruth Milkman, chief of staff for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, argued there were historical precedents for mandatory interconnection. She pointed to railroad systems and electrical networks of early in the United States as having evolved partly due to through regulatory oversight.

“There have been diverse regulatory approaches to ensuring effective interconnection,” Milkman said. “Some have involved a relatively lighter touch; others a heavier hand. Often, price regulation has been part of the package. At the bottom, however, is that a network without connections and interconnections is one that simply doesn’t work. Disconnected networks simply do not serve the public interest.”

Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania, opined said that interconnection is was essential, especially particularly when the all communications networks is are converging into onto an internet protocol network. While the FCC should not micro-manage private agreements, a public policy backstop was needed for private enterprise interconnection agreements.

“It’s [naive] to believe that somehow, magically, this will work itself out given the way the network’s changing,” he said. “Some FCC involvement would have a lot of benefits,” he said. “I think it’s not right to say ‘do we have private agreements or do we have the FCC?’ We can absolutely have lots of room for private agreements but still have a sense that there are certain practices which are anti-competitive. ”

Werbach distinguished net neutrality and interconnection as separate issues. Interconnection  concerns the “edge of provider networks, not the network,” Werbach said. Yet the two have similar implications. Both situations leave open the possibility of an ISP internet service provider degrading and differentiating between traffic, he said.

Economists Incorporated Senior Fellow Hal Singer and Gerry Faulhaber, professor emeritus of business economics and public policy from at the University of Pennsylvania, did not favor regulatory oversight of private agreements. Faulhaber scoffed at the idea: “light touch regulation…is sort of like jumbo shrimp – it’s kind of an oxymoron.”

“Interconnection is not just a communications issue,” Faulhaber said. “It occurs in virtually every business in which the producer of something – it could be canned peas – has to distribute something to customers through distributors like supermarkets. Distributing through supermarkets works so nobody’s going for regulation of supermarkets…. We have an [internet] system that works.”

Calling for regulation of internet access because networks have changed is a fallacy, he said. The Internet has maintained itself for 30 years. The FCC, by contrast, has a “terrible reputation as an adjudicator.”

History has consistently shown that limited regulation causes two things to occur: rent- seeking and a slippery slope of more regulation.

“Once a commission interests itself in a particular area, puts a sign out that says ‘open business,’ which is what we did [with] the open internet order. What happens? Firms realize, ‘oh I don’t get to make money looking at customers and making investments. I make money by going to the regulators and getting them to favor me and disfavor others. For thirty 30 years, we never had complaints about interconnections. Since 2010, we’ve had a number…why? ‘Open for business.’

“The second thing that happens is even though commissioners may say ‘we want to limit how much we regulate,’ that won’t happen. They will be under constant pressure to expand the regulatory writ. Level 3 in 2010 said ‘let’s try to leverage network neutrality into regulating interconnection.’ It looks like we’re now leveraging the interest of the FCC in net neutrality into interest in interconnection.”

Singer added that the costs of mandatory interconnection outweighed the benefits, precisely because there have been relatively few network disputes.

“If the probability of these disruptions happening is close to zero, then the expected benefit of imposing mandatory interconnection is small as well,” Singer said.

On the cost side, Singer argued that if networks are forced to connect, it could upset providers’ “make or buy decision” and undermine some of the goals of Section 706 of the Communications Act of 1996 – namely, to encourage deployment.

“Some people point to Sprint and T-Mobile’s reluctance to deploy their spectrum into rural areas,” he said. “Mandatory interconnection and data roaming agreements cause them to want to take the ‘buy’ decision over the ‘make’ decision – so I’m worried about what it would do to incentives, not just of ISPs, but also of these middle-mile folks and content providers who are now getting a little taste of what it’s like to be in last-mile access.”

Taking a more neutral stance, Peha said he could see both sides of the argument on intervention by the FCC’s intervention. Ultimately, the agency has to provide more concrete evidence that there is a significant problem in the first place. The FCC also has to prove it can make things better.

“I would like to see more information gathered,” Peha said. “I think that’s where the FCC can do something constructive is to try to shed a little light on all those private agreements and just see if we have to be concerned about them.”

Anna-Maria Kovacs, a visiting scholar at Georgetown University’s Center for Business and Public Policy, expressed more condescension, arguing that even though it is essential for everyone to interconnect, several decades’ worth of history have proven that private commercial agreements can get the internet to that point.

Regulation, said, would eliminate flexibility and consequently lead to investments drying up.

“Barring a breakdown, we really should not be intervening because the rigidities that regulation would bring to the system would probably create far more chaos than the occasional disputes that you have between parties,” said Kovacs.

Kevin Werbach concluded by seeking to rebut arguments in opposition to regulation.

“I would hate to see the internet turn into a supermarket that’s just selling us peas,” Werbach said. “That’s not what the internet is today… not [the] open platform that generated so much extraordinary innovation. It’s a linear market – nothing comes back from the consumer the other way…. That’s not the internet we should have in the future.”

FCC

FCC Seeks Comment on Higher Broadband Speeds and Increased Security Measures for Certain Carriers

FCC will consider raising the speed standard for certain carriers that receive fixed monthly funding from the agency.

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Screenshot of FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Sparks

WASHINGTON, May 19, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted at its open meeting Thursday to seek comment on enhancing the Alternative Connect America Cost Model program, which would raise speed deployment obligations and align security goals with the Infrastructure, Investment and Jobs Act.

The ACAM program, established in 2016, provides fixed monthly funding to certain carriers serving high-cost and hard-to-reach areas in return for commitments to provide broadband service to all eligible locations.

The ACAM broadband coalition requested that broadband deployment obligations be raised from the current federal standard of 25 Megabits per second download and 3 Mbps upload to 100/20 Mbps, the standard now set by the IIJA that will then be required of ACAM carriers to deliver.

Baseline cybersecurity proposal

The FCC is also requesting comment on whether it should “require A-CAM carriers and carriers receiving high-cost support to have a baseline cybersecurity and supply chain risk management plans.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Sparks indicated that the FCC will focus its efforts on harmonizing ACAM’s modification proposal with cyber security standards indicated in the Broadband, Equity, Access and Deployment program, which is managed by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration and that will be disbursing billions in broadband infrastructure funding.

“Networks that are subsidized or built with federal funds must be secure,” Sparks said. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks on American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, who said the FCC is looking to align its goals with the IIJA, concluded that “this is not the only effort we’re making to ensure that new broadband programs are working hand-in-glove with long-standing FCC efforts.”

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FCC

Treasury Department Joins FCC, USDA and NTIA in Collaborating on Broadband Funding

Agency leaders sign pact to formalize information-sharing on broadband deployment projects.

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Photo of Janet Yellen from January 2018 by the European Central Bank

WASHINGTON, May 13, 2022—Just in advance of the deadline for the release of the funding requirements under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs act, the four principal federal agencies responsible for broadband funding released an interagency agreement to share information about and collaborate regarding the collection and reporting of certain data and metrics relating to broadband deployment.

The agencies are the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration of the Commerce Department, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury.

The Memorandum of Understanding is the latest development in federal efforts to coordinate high-speed internet spending, and the Treasury Department is the new addition to agreement.

The other three agencies signed a prior memorandum in June 2021 to coordinate the distribution of federal high-speed internet funds. That June 2021 Memorandum of Understanding remains in effect.

The respective Cabinet and Agency leaders announced that their agencies will consult with one another and share information on data collected from programs administered by the FCC, the USDA’s Rural Utilities Service, programs administered or coordinated by NTIA, and Treasury’s Coronavirus Capital Projects Fund and State and Local Fiscal Recovery Fund.

“No matter who you are or where you live in this country, you need access to high-speed internet to have a fair shot at 21st century success. The FCC, NTIA, USDA and Treasury are working together like never before to meet this shared goal,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “Our new interagency agreement will allow us to collaborate more efficiently and deepen our current data sharing relationships[and] get everyone, everywhere connected to the high-speed internet they need.”

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “When we invest in rural infrastructure, we invest in the livelihoods and health of people in rural America. High-speed internet is the new electricity.  It is necessary for Americans to do their jobs, to participate equally in school learning, to have access to health care and to stay connected.”

“USDA remains committed to being a strong partner with rural communities and our state, Tribal and federal partners in building ‘future-proof’ broadband infrastructure in unserved and underserved areas so that we finally reach 100 percent high-speed broadband coverage across the country.”

“Our whole-of-government effort to expand broadband adoption must be coordinated and efficient if we are going to achieve our mission,” said Alan Davidson, Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Communications and Information and head of the NTIA, the agency responsible for administering the vast bulk of the broadband funding.

“This MOU will allow us to build the tools we need for even better data-sharing and transparency in the future,” he said.

“Treasury is proud to work with our federal agency partners to achieve President Biden’s goal of closing the nation’s digital divide,” said U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen.  “Access to affordable, high-speed internet is critical to the continued strength of our economy and a necessity for every American household, school, and business.”

As part of the signed agreement, each federal agency partner will share information about projects that have received or will receive funding from the previously mentioned federal funding sources.  More information on what the interagency Memorandum of Understanding entails can be found on the FCC’s website.  The agreement is effective at the date of its signing, May 11, 2022.

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Expert Opinion

Christopher Mitchell: Former Sen. Heitkamp’s Attacks on Gigi Sohn for FCC are Wildly Off-Base

Former North Dakota senator sounds practical, but she is misreading quotes or taking them out of context.

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The author of this Expert Opinion is Chris Mitchell, director of the Community Broadband Networks Initiative at Institute for Local Self-Reliance

Gigi Sohn is still up for confirmation by the Senate to complete the Federal Communications Commission – an independent agency in the executive branch of the federal government that has been stuck at a 2-2 split of Democrats and Republicans since President Biden took office. The FCC is supposed to operate with five commissioners, with the party of the President in power having 3 seats.

She was the obvious choice in December of 2020, when it was clear that Joe Biden would take office. With decades of history in telecom and media-related policy as well as a recent stint as Counselor to Tom Wheeler when he was Chair of the FCC, she would be among the most-qualified people to serve on it since I began working in telecom in 2007. And by among, I mean at the top.

I’ve known Gigi for many years and respected her from the first time I saw her in action. She isn’t a political agent trying to figure out the best path to the top. She has strong beliefs, and she’ll tell you what they are in a wonderful Long Island blur of passion. She respects other beliefs and ideas but she isn’t going to pretend she agrees with you when she doesn’t.

Maybe my word isn’t that persuasive, because I tend to agree with Sohn on many issues. But a lot of people with far more credibility among conservatives have spoken up on Gigi. So I hadn’t written anything about this because I assumed it would take time but Gigi would get confirmed. Plus, I focus my work outside DC and there is a lot going on that is keeping us busy.

Gigi was always under fire by the likes of the Wall Street Journal Opinion page, which has made baseless claims about her not being committed to free speech, using tortured logic around denying mergers. If I went off every time that bunch embarrassed the good work of their reporters, I wouldn’t do anything else.

But then some allies forwarded me claims coming from former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp – someone I have listened to being interviewed on podcasts and generally thought well of because she sounds practical. But the attacks from Heitkamp on Gigi are so off-base that I had to respond because I’m often working with people in rural communities for whom this issue is not theoretical. They have suffered for more than a decade of federal and state mismanagement of broadband expansion programs. Their towns are struggling as hospitals close and jobs move away to areas with better access. Their children have fewer educational opportunities. They face greater risk from communications failures in natural disasters. Getting this right is important.

Multiple off-base complaints about Gigi Sohn and rural America

Heitkamp makes multiple claims that Gigi’s confirmation would be bad for rural America based on misreading quotes or taking them out of context to pretend that Gigi is not concerned with rural broadband challenges. Like this:

  • During an April 2021 interview with Bloomberg Government, saying ‘What [have we gotten] for [the federal government’s existing] $50 billion investment? Not much.’

Is this a sign that Gigi thinks we shouldn’t spend money in rural America?  That is what Heitkamp wants you to believe. But the very next passage in that article says this:

  • ‘What do we get for a $50 billion investment? Not much,’ she said in an interview. ‘What we don’t want is to be in the position we are today: where we built networks that were for then, and not for now, and not for the future.’

The article is about whether money spent on rural broadband subsidies should be built using yesterday’s or tomorrow’s technology. Gigi has been on the right side of this question – we should be making sure that investments in rural America will permanently solve the problem.

Heitkamp was Senator from 2013-2019, a time when the federal government gave multiple billions of dollars to the biggest telecom monopolies – like AT&T. They didn’t even meet the pathetic requirements of that program. Like, at all.

Don’t just take my word for it. Minnesota’s Blandin Foundation has long been a national model for seeking broadband solutions that really work. That work is run by Bernadine Joselyn, someone I have worked with off and on and who has put real thought into rural policy. Regarding the billions of dollars under Connect America Fund, she was quoted here:

  • Those speeds were ‘such a waste of public dollars,’ said Bernadine Joselyn, public policy director for the Blandin Foundation, a Grand Rapids, Minnesota, nonprofit focused on rural issues. ‘If you’re going to make an investment in broadband, you want it to be future proof, especially with public funds. I think it’s reasonable to expect it would benefit a community for decades.’

Heitkamp’s time would be far better used exposing the policies in DC that sent billions to AT&T and bankrupt companies like Frontier that failed to connect rural America.  Instead, she is running a national campaign to tank Gigi’s nomination because Gigi dared to suggest that subsidies to rural America should actually benefit rural residents and businesses. Because Gigi also believes that we should balance rural investment with subsidies to cities, where millions more Americans are ignored or poorly served by cable monopolies and where little girls do their homework at Taco Bell in the city of Salinas just like their peers in rural McDonald’s parking lots.

North Dakota once broke free of big monopolies

Here is the savage irony of Heitkamp running down Gigi with this attack. Heitkcamp is positioning herself as the savior of rural America while selling it out to the monopolies that have refused to invest in it. And she does it while knowing that her former constituents in North Dakota won’t be as harmed as the rest of the country because North Dakota is already wired. 77 percent of the rural areas in the state can connect to the Internet via future-proof, fiber networks, compared to just 20 percent of rural Americans as a whole. North Dakota broke free of the big monopolies that refused to invest outside of the cities, when local cooperatives and independent telcos bought the lines from those monopolies decades ago to better serve their subscribers.

Tanking Gigi’s nomination on these grounds sends a message that rural subsidies should continue going to those companies that simply extract wealth from rural areas. Gigi stands to make sure we invest in networks that are accountable to rural communities rather than handing billions to companies that are better at astroturf marketing campaigns than connecting farms with fiber. I understand why the telecom monopolies are frequently happy to bankroll misinformation campaigns to further their interests. I’m confused why so many people are so easily taken by them.

Gigi is deeply respected by the people who oppose damn near everything she does. I want to see Gigi on the FCC for the same reason her opponents do – because she is not the type to sell out for a buck. She is the model for who we need on the FCC.

Editor’s Note: This piece was authored by Christopher Mitchell, director of the Institute for Local Self Reliance’s Community Broadband Network Initiative. His work focuses on helping communities ensure that the telecommunications networks upon which they depend are accountable to the community. He was honored as one of the 2012 Top 25 in Public Sector Technology by Government Technology, which honors the top “Doers, Drivers, and Dreamers” in the nation each year. This piece was originally published on MuniNetworks.org on April 26, 2022, and is reprinted with permission.

Broadband Breakfast accepts commentary from informed observers of the broadband scene. Please send pieces to commentary@breakfast.media. The views expressed in Expert Opinion pieces do not necessarily reflect the views of Broadband Breakfast and Breakfast Media LLC.

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